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For Openers - The Opening Act

THE SOLO PERFORMER: Being The Opening Act

Written by
Michael Johnson


Relentlessly, the DJ goads the crowd, milking them out of responses they don't feel - asking several thousand people to fake an orgasm. It's that insipid Vegas style of entertainment. Bad taste is timeless. From the wings you sense the unique cheesiness of this moment. Standing there you are thinking "I don't have enough personal charisma to follow this introduction." "AND HERE TO START OFF THE SHOW IS A MAN WHO HAILS FROM ... " (glance at paper 'Oh God, where's he from?') ... umm ... "PISMO BEACH CALIFORNIA ... and ... uh ... HE HAS A CD OUT" (right? ... he doesn't? oh.) SO HERE HE IS NOW, PLEASE WELCOME ... ah ... MISTER JOSH THOMPSON!!!

Dutiful applause. Nobody, including yourself, has ever heard of you, mostly because your name is not Josh Thompson. It's Billy Settle or Mary Ann Brandenberg or something not remotely similar to Josh Thompson, and you're from Alamosa, Colorado, dammit. Somehow all this gets lost in the last minute confusion. To a tepid reception you begin the wooden walk to the center of a huge black stage. By the time you get to your spot, the applause has stopped. The first human you see is a guy who is tapping his watch to see if it still works and is now holding it up to his ear. The mains engineer has neglected to mute your guitar line so when you plug in, it puts an enormous "POP" into the PA. His fault - your ass. Thus your initial greeting to the aliens is abusive. The monitors sound thin, electrically bright and real loud - so loud that when you open your mouth to sing, the rasping hissy sound of your inhalation tells you that nothing in your life has prepared you for this and you are going to die.

You open for people you haven't met, and aren't going to. Sometimes it's better if you don't If they don't want to meet you, you don't want to bother them. Truth be told, I'm not all that comfortable around people who can make me or break me anyway. Maybe you're opening for Green Day or maybe even somebody cool ... but for now let's just call then "The Cash," because that's exactly what the riggers and other crew call them. "The Cash" because, for example, if someone isn't standing there with a flashlight when the star starts to walk off the edge of the stage in the dark - well, if something happens, maybe the rest of your tour gets canceled. If Commander Tex falls and breaks a rib, nobody works for weeks.

You play in daylight in front of a closed curtain - you play the 25,000 seat amphitheater - looking like an ant. You play when your name is not on the ticket, not on the advertising. The people who do know your stuff are surprised to see you there. They tell you after.

It's also difficult for you as the opener because the front five rows of Elvis' crowd only want one thing - to have sex with the King. They have pre-judged you and you're trying to change their opinion of you. I recently saw Shawn Colvin open for Lyle Lovett at Red Rocks Amphitheater, one of the most beautiful outdoor natural venues in the world, to thousands of indifferent, talking people, waiting for Lyle ... It was weird because they knew and even loved her work, but you know, she wasn't the Kahuna that night ... it was sad.

I believe we are forgetting how to be with each other publicly. The climax-per-second pace of VH-1 has made live music more fragile that it ever was. Classical guitar concerts, always a challenge both for performer and listener, are more tedious than ever now, with whispering, coughing, trips to the bathroom and other inconsiderations. All this makes it even tougher for the opener.

Headliners sometimes use the pre-show time to rehearse their band, making the process that much longer. So you see, you might get a soundcheck, you might not. It is their stage, their show, their time. You spend your pre-show time being ready to do a soundcheck, which means you try to stay tuned, warmed up and ready to slip into that powder blue tux in an instant. Sometimes five minutes before doors open you get your shot, sometimes it happens as the crowd is coming in. No fun. Often there just isn't a sound check for you. Sometimes you'll get a "line check" - just to make sure your mike and guitar are hot - nothing fancy, but there is great comfort in knowing that when you begin to play there will at least be sound. If your guitar is the whole band for you and the line goes dead, can you ham-bone? Do you carry spoons?

Ever wonder why the sound and lights are often so much better for the headliner than for the opener? It isn't by design really. It's often that the opening act doesn't have its duck in a row. Everybody out here has a job to do and if you don't cover your own ass you wind up with an "afterthought" type of production. Openers on large tours tip the people who do sound and lights. More or less a tradition, you give the monitor and mains engineer, the stage manager and the lighting honcho each $25 or so, discreetly. (They're only paying you $100.00? Well, you know, you need the exposure.) You discover quickly that they have tight schedules too, and they've been living in bus bunks, haven't seen a hotel room since before you have, and you are currently interrupting either their sleep or their dinner. So do like Mikey says: a little incentive is a very good thing. Do it before the show.

It's also really important to keep your own "production" down, to be as little an encumbrance technically as is possible. One of the reasons you might be seen as a better choice than other acts they've considered is that the set change between shows is minimal.

DJs are frustrated performers, nervous because they aren't on stage often and aren't used to being seen. They have to tell the joke, tell the crowd who they are, and they keep going. They can do damage with their moment of fame. You need to have a talk with the DJ, or whoever is mastering the ceremony. Write your introduction out if they look more frightened than you. (He's not gonna have a pen.) I tell them to make it short and sweet and I ask them to not to pump the thing too much. That can be a problem if there are two of them. They kind of froth each other up. I make sure the MC knows I'm ready and in position before he walks out there. I make a deal to meet just before the introduction, eyeball to eyeball. And if I like where my microphone is positioned, I tell him not to touch it, because if I don't, he will - he'll need something to do with his hands.

Then there's the total stranger to the stage who's petrified to introduce you, who won't speak in a full voice or directly into the microphone - although it's actually easier to follow a wimpy introduction than a puffed up one.

Backstage is busy. The green room (never seen a green one yet) is often occupied with "Meet and Greets," pre-arranged meetings with the headliners and their selected fan club members. There are load-ins and load-outs in progress, there are set changes ready to go, clothing changing stations, people hanging over the stage from suspended chairs, hand operating special spots. Security is everywhere. (Don't lose your pass.)

There are "Dark Stages," blackout times, usually at the dinner hour, seriously enforced in many of the big union halls. When you walk out on stage to check to make sure you're somewhat ready to go, you might make some enemies. The Teamsters can close the show down for innocent infractions like that. A word about the Teamsters: the stereotype of the lazy/shiftless stagehand exists because the precedent has been set. Many contract riders call for "sober spot operators" for that very reason. (Do you know how to find the children of union parents in the school yard? They're the ones who stand around and watch the other kids play. Little industry joke.)

Is the backstage filled with adventure and potential conquest? You bet! The characters who manage somehow to get themselves backstage at the bigger shows are real studies. The bus chasers - the groupies, the slutty strut of the backstage girls, the man standing in front of the blaring stacks holding a shell-shocked baby. The word "fan" is short for fanatic. (Country music calls them "gherms.") Backstage is a land of enchantment.

The social scene is different for different musical formats. Country music is a very hands-on business. Country artists seem to be judged by their fans in terms of how "real" they are. In other words, by how long they are willing to sign autographs. It doesn't pay to be aloof in Cowboy country. Jazz, on the other hand, is way too cool to be available for such peasant behavior, and my guess is that the X Generation backstage has to be a pageant of attitude all its own. I'll wait for the movie. Or the musical.

Some of the larger halls in major cities will charge 30-40% of your concessions (because they can), and if you don't have anyone selling for you, you'll probably need to strike an additional deal with the headliner's guy or girl who is selling the photos, key chains and autographed condoms for Tex. If your take is small you might make it past the T-shirt police. You may be losing money selling your CDs anyway. (I just think of them as business cards now.) When I open for someone I sell my stuff during intermission only. I don't want to be perceived as being in competition with the star - it puts the faithful off.

It's been great fun to travel with different bands on their buses. You are entering the twilight zone, a sub-culture that has developed its own humor, its own language. It's like being transported to a parallel universe where everything's fine except there aren't any sevens or we have no word for "stomach" or something.

Bands are just that, people who band together and know each other better than their spouses or girlfriends ever will. I do love to travel with the gypsies!

I have toured with some very professional and gracious people. These days I've been opening for Alison Krauss - fooling with the band backstage, performing together - she even introduces me. Wonderful. Wynonna Judd and Clint Black were fantastic as well. And then ... there are the other tours. It would be unprofessional to tell you who the bozos have been for me. Showbiz is full of talk about who's really a dipstick and who's not.

One year I was signed to the William Morris booking agency. They got me a total of six jobs that all whole year, all opening for Cheech and Chong ... tripped out children falling out of the bleachers ... by the sixth show I was wishing for chain mail.

Opening act stories are legion. There is the one attributed to Zoot Simms, who was opening for Roy Rogers one time and was very frustrated to find that Trigger's name was bigger than his on the marquee. Roy used to start his show by riding out into the center of the arena, Trigger would rear back and Roy would take off his hat in a great big ol' "Howdy." Well an angry Zoot is rumored to have given Trig a big ol' woody with a broom in his stall just before the show and ... the rest is history.

The things artists are willing to do for "exposure" are amazing: shopping center openings, casinos, malls, shoe stores, weddings, parades. I haven't played a divorce yet, but I've got a lot of great material for the occasion, so let me know.

I don't know if the exposure you get is worth it, but at the time, everyone tells you so. My mom always said you can die of exposure.

Why have an opening act at all? It may be that you have a strong local following here and the promoter needs you to put some people in the seats. Or the headliner doesn't have enough material to cover the entire two hours. Or it's an outdoor show and she or he won't go on while it's daylight. Of course your job description includes "warming up the crowd," so this wouldn't be the best time to do your Miles Davis imitation. Show length is a favorite topic, usually at the last minute, backstage - terror for you because you've planned the show well, haven't you, and now Tex's road manager wants you to do twenty minutes, but the promoter wants the agreed upon thirty-five. While humoring all concerned, remember that the person you are working for is the one whose name is at the lower right corner of your check.

Maybe you're on the show because they like you. Whatever the reason, it's important to realize that it is not your job to try to "blow 'em off the stage" and make your friends proud. That's not why they hired you.

So the challenge I guess is to do something great without seeming to. Even if they don't remember your name. ("Gee that guy who went on first was good. What was his name - Josh something?")

I believe I have found a way to do the shortest and yet the most powerful show, achieving exactly what the promoter and the headliner want and getting a standing ovation in the process. Upon taking the stage you simply say: "FOR MY OPENING NUMBER I'D LIKE TO CLOSE WITH OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM, SO IF YOU'LL ALL PLEASE RISE ... "

Break a leg.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 4, Issue 19 - July/August 1996

More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns